The long and winding road

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You know that saying: “Travel broadens the mind”? I’ve been thinking about that a lot over the last couple of weeks, partly because by the time you read this I will have started a long stay in Ireland, so travel is on my mind. Yes, after all the lockdowns and restrictions, travel is once again relatively easy, with very few requirements beyond having a vaccination certificate. You still need a special form, the ArriveCan, in order to reenter Canada, but that is not a big deal. No more need for tests before you leave for the airport, no more collection of paperwork to prove you’re healthy.

You still have to wear a mask in the airport and on the plane, but I find many people are quite happy about that, and it makes them feel safer when they travel for hours in a plane. I think people will often continue to choose mask-wearing as a standard thing in future, much as they’ve been doing in places like Japan for generations. Fair enough, I suppose.

But there’s something else that I’ve been pondering about this broadening the mind aspect of travel. In the past, I just thought it meant that you learned something about other countries and cultures, and that this was a nice and painless form of education in many ways. But now I think: what’s the opposite of a broad mind? And the answer is, naturally, a narrow mind. A light went on in my fevered brain. That’s what it means: travel can cure you of having a narrow mind, being narrow-minded.

Exposure to other cultures, people of other languages, traditions, religions, people of other colours. It is one thing to be see people of various ethnicities and colours in your neighbourhood, or cities and towns. After all, you’re still in the majority, because the majority of them are Canadians, no matter what differences there may appear to be with you. But to visit another country where you are in the minority, where, perhaps, you don’t speak the language, understand the customs, know which side of the road to drive on, being uncomfortable about not knowing what is polite behaviour or the right way to use restaurants and facilities, is a very different situation.

You have a choice, and far too often North Americans (ok, Americans more than Canadians) want to stay in their comfort zone when in a foreign land. Instead of trying the local food, they demand McDonald’s. They complain about accommodations not being of the same style or comfort as those at home perhaps. To be honest, there are some tourists who simply judge everything they see as being “not as good as at home”. These are not welcome guests in any country. In fact, it’s like they never really visited at all.

Yes, other countries, other cultures are different, and sometimes strange and leave you feeling ill at ease. But there’s a lesson to be learned there. What makes you uncomfortable? Difference, uncertainty, foreign things. And those differences can create antagonism, suspicion, unease. And when people are uneasy about something different, it can lead to many forms of racism, bigotry, intolerance, and nativism. But for most, it has the opposite effect. Travel to other cultures, meeting other people with different cultures and traditions, can open your eyes to so many things, good things. You learn that, for all the differences, we are all people, all humans with the same concerns, taking joy in the same things, having the same desires and loves (and hates too, sadly).

It is no coincidence that the past two years of lockdowns, restricted travel, even within our own province and nation, has also seen the growth of conspiracy theories, angry protests, attacks on minorities, immigrants, women, and other forms of violent reactions against others, whoever the “others” may be. Fears have surfaced, exacerbated by wild tirades on social media platforms, even within traditional political parties. Society has become increasingly narrow, suspicious, intolerant, and angry.

We should be so grateful that the situation is opening up opportunities for getting out of our narrow circles and into the outside world again, whether it’s within Ontario, Canada, North America, or around the world. We have the chance of being moved by beautiful scenery, eating delicious foods, hearing different accents and languages, talking to people who have a completely different experience of life than we do. Travel broadens the mind, but it doesn’t have to be literal travel either. You can travel via films, tv shows, documentaries, cooking and travel programs, books, and so many other ways. Of course, actually visiting a new place has so many other dimensions not possible in these ways. Sometimes, it’s the smells in the wind, the taste of the food, the intangibles that come back to mind later, as Wordsworth put it: “For oft, when on my couch I lie, In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.”

That’s it: travel broadens the mind, fills it with new thoughts and visions, opens it to new ideas and wider vistas. Then, later, at home and in down times, those memories come back and give us some perspective on our routine daily lives. We remember that there is a wider world out there, beyond our narrow and restricted vision. So, pardon me, I’m off to make some memories for a few weeks….

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